In the lead-up to this year’s Glastonbury festival the consistently excellent online pop culture magazine The Quietus ran a suitably mocking festival update entitled ‘Somme-Watch’. Though chiefly seeking to satirise the lazy commentator’s tendency to equate a little bit of mud in Wiltshire with the calamitous events of the First World War, these instances of indiscriminate hyperbole were made to appear even more incongruous given the radical evolution of the British music festival over the last twenty years or so.
From a series of chiefly denim and leather affairs that routinely reeked of wet dog, patchouli oil, and amyl nitrate, the modern festival-goer – if sufficiently well-heeled – can embrace an experience not wildly dissimilar from that of Henley Regatta or Ascot (if that’s what floats your luxury yurt/yacht). Though it would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, the likes of Glastonbury, Latitude, and Secret Garden Party now form the backbone of the modern ‘Society Summer’ and despite a number of notable exceptions (more of which, later) for many, the music on offer, or even the concept of music itself, is a secondary consideration within a culture in which social media photo opportunities and the bizarre notion of ‘attendance validation’ reign supreme. In this sense, many of our contemporary festivals have become the perfect metaphor for modern day pop culture itself, existing in jarring opposition to the cultural idealism from which they were initially spawned; the badge of attendance, the commercial sponsor writ large, the crushing victory of ‘like’ over ‘love’, the celebration of the surface of things.
In an expertly piercing satirical article entitled ‘Nice Girls Pretending to Look Forward to Glastonbury’, The Daily Mash sums up the seemingly prevailing Zeitgeist via the imagined words of Durham University student ‘Joanna Kramer’, a woman ‘struggling to maintain her enthusiasm for seeing Dolly Parton in an ironic way’:
My friend Charlotte said she wouldn’t mind not washing her hair for a few days, which was clearly a lie because she owns a bottle of conditioner that cost £95. I wanted to tell her that none of us wanted to go to Glastonbury, but then it would have looked as if I didn’t want to go to Glastonbury. It’s a conspiracy of silence.
But let’s get back to the mud for a while, shall we? As a modernist believer in the concept of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’ my relationship with festivals has always been a challenging one, and whilst I’m the first to mock the wholesale hijacking of what remains at heart an alternative arts environment by a Sloaney faction of cultural day-trippers, my own inflexible prerequisites of hot running water and a dry mattress have no doubt frequently curtailed my access to what might have otherwise been life-affirming experiences. As such, and as much as I have sought to reference Glastonbury as a cultural phenomenon, I have never actually been; though this doesn’t automatically place me amongst the mean-spirited faction of pompous naysayers who pray for Wiltshire rain each year on the fairly shabby basis of undermining the enjoyment of those attending an event that they otherwise would have absolutely no interest in.
Though once opposed to the very existence of crusties and jugglers, my ire is now primarily reserved for the aforementioned new wave of trustafarian Jack Wills androids who think that Prince Harry is a ‘legend’ and who seem to have ruined Worthy Farm in much the same way that they have ruined my favourite London pubs. Yet, my most recent festival experience, a resolutely and distinctively Welsh one, was in turn a wholly civilised yet all-encompassingly joyful one. Wales Arts Review’s account of our expedition to Portmeirion for Festival Number 6 might read like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas if it had been sponsored by Waitrose but it speaks volumes about the culinary, literary, and cinephilic delights that were on offer that weekend; an impeccable assemblage of what it takes to deliver a unique festival experience in an age when an audience demands more than just music. You can read about it here (including a notable passage in which I assume the role of ‘the blond’, the dining/drinking partner foil to my colleague John Lavin’s erudite A.A. Gill – you can find John’s account here).
It would be lazy and churlish however to lay the blame for such developments upon social class and wealth disparity alone, especially given that no microcosm of society can reasonably expect to remain immune from the wider excesses of the outside world. The appropriation of festival (and let’s not forget, outsider) culture by those who might otherwise openly despise outsiders is much more of a pressing concern within this context. In this sense, I am referring primarily to the toxic experience that is Richard Branson’s V Festival, a fake-tanned, badly-tattooed shindig of brooding menace and shameless corporate opportunism aimed squarely at the kind of audience for whom Olly Murs is less the new Robbie Williams, and more the new Iggy Pop. ‘V’ masquerades as a festival because it is scared of acknowledging what it actually is – a more elaborate and expensive embodiment of what used to be known as the Radio 1 Roadshow; music for people who have little love for music, art for people who see art as a waste of time and money, a carousel of bargain basement celebrity for which The Kings of Leon and The Only Way is Essex were both seemingly tailor-made. In the coming weeks, Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers will take to its stage in make-up and a ballet-skirt and perform a tried and tested greatest hits set to a fair proportion of people who would happily kick his head in if they bumped into him buying chocolate and crisps at a 24-hour garage. And regardless of my one-time teenage prejudices I’ll take a juggler over that, any day.
It’s all a far cry from my initial and tentative forays into the festival circuit. Frankfurt’s ‘Bizarre’ festival, arrived at via an inky ad in the back pages of the NME and an interminable coach journey from South Wales to Germany, sticks in my mind for many reasons: the good (Pixies, Iggy Pop, Lush), the bad (members of both sexes openly defecating out of trees), and the frankly inexplicable. At the time it felt as if the only other Welsh people present were The Alarm, who – only a matter of months after German reunification – brought dishonour upon our nation by cranking out an abominably artless take on ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, so devoid of light, shade, and political savvy that it wouldn’t have been out of place at a Tea Party rally.
A few years later it was Staffordshire’s now-defunct Phoenix Festival that was to be bear-hugged by the industrial bonhomie of South Wales culture. During the same Summer in which Newport was anointed by no lesser publication than Rolling Stone as ‘the new Seattle’, what seemed like the entire clientèle of the city’s Murenger House and Le Pub hostelries saw fit to descend upon the sleepy denizens of Stratford-upon-Avon in an awe-inspiring booze-drenched display of civic pride and guest-list chicanery. A three-day municipal exodus of mouthy hubris that culminated in the performance of local heroes 60ft Dolls, a band who (in true Newport style) were nevertheless required to win over an excruciatingly demanding audience that had travelled 150 miles to see them.
Though the forthcoming return of Green Man to the Brecon Beacons is likely to be found wanting in the mid-90s excess stakes, its ever-impressive line-up of cultural delights and its refusal to slavishly chase the corporate dollar will no doubt ensure that its inimitable identity will embed roots ever deeper into the Black Mountains. Wales Arts Review will, as ever, be out in force to give the event the extensive range of critical coverage that it demands, and for those planning to attend this year’s event in person I have it on extremely good authority that there is a van there knocking out the world’s greatest churros. I cannot guarantee that the sickly sweet aroma of patchouli oil won’t lay siege to your nostrils at any point, there may even be a juggler or two, but I’d put good money on you having a pretty good time and there not being an angry, pilled-up City boy wanting to set up about you for the perceived crime of daring to like ‘weird music’. Nicky Wire, you have been warned.
original illustration by Dean Lewis